Before watching the pilot episode of American Crime, I had a passing familiarity with it. I’d seen a preview and thought it looked interesting enough. However, something about the preview’s abundance of tense emotional clips and vague plot details screamed melodrama to me. Unfortunately melodrama wasn’t the worst thing about the pilot episode of American Crime.
John Ridley, who won an Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, created the anthology crime drama and wrote and directed the pilot episode. Instead of creating an intriguing story, however, Ridley delivered a jumbled mess with shoddy storytelling and reckless (bordering on dangerous) social commentary.
Russ (Timothy Hutton) wakes up to the horrible news that his son has been murdered. He flies to Modesto, California, identifies the body and contacts his ex-wife (Felicity Huffman). Elsewhere in Modesto, addicts Aubry and Carter (Caitlin Gerard and Elvis Nolasco) struggle to get their next fix, a Hispanic man uses the victim’s credit card and single father Alonzo (Benito Martinez) struggles to keep his two kids innocent and moral.
The show puts a lot of effort into giving everyone depth. The grieving parents are divorcees who haven’t buried the hatchet, Alonzo is a strict and morally sound single parent, the junkies are dreamers that are in love but victims to addiction. The problem is that it seems really one-sided and very much agenda-driven.
The grieving mother is annoyingly racist. She seems to exist solely as the personification of the show’s themes and racial undertones. It comes across as really overbearing and on the nose. Felicity Huffman does well enough with what she’s given but there’s such a lack of subtlety in the writing that it’s really difficult to take her character or the show seriously.
There is also no attempt whatsoever to show the investigation into the murder. That may be part of the setup of the show, as the season is covering the ensuing trial. But the show’s title is American Crime and the pilot episode covers the aftermath of the murder leading up to an arrest. In telling its story, the show turns such a blind eye to the entire investigation that it ends up vilifying police.
This is where American Crime’s social commentary becomes reckless. Things like police brutality and wrongful convictions are currently big real life issues. As they should be. However, American Crime’s pilot episode is sloppily engineered to pit the audience against the police investigating the crime and the criminal justice system as a whole.
The police are cold and distant in the show in a way that screams bias and agenda. In what is the most aggravating scene in the entire episode, a person of interest is shot in the leg while running away from police that have surrounded him. In the hospital the suspect repeatedly asks the detective why the officers shot him. The detective doesn’t answer him at all and instead, interrogates him about the crime.
This sets the audience against the police in what I assume is social commentary. What makes this offensive to me is that the shooting is purely set dressing. It presents the police officer’s use of force as business as usual despite not making any logical sense whatsoever. But even if the circumstances of the shooting made sense, it would still exist in the hollow, antagonistic perspective in which the show has lazily placed the police.
This kind of reckless disregard for real world police procedures is harmful to the issues that American Crime seems to want to spotlight. It deprives the narrative from being an effective display of the problems it’s depicting and instead, it comes across as pandering and one-sided.
Other than the social commentary, there’s a big disconnect with the crime itself. The show opens with a 911 recording and then we’re brought into the story from Hutton’s character’s perspective. Aside from a couple very quick flashes of the victim’s wedding footage, we don’t get any backstory whatsoever on the victim until halfway through the episode. And even then it’s competing with Felicity Huffman’s character’s second or third racist comment.
American Crime is a crime drama anthology series that seems to have a lot to say about race issues, the war on drugs and police brutality. Not only is it frustrating that John Ridley chose to make American Crime a soapbox, it’s unfortunate that the show takes such an awkward approach to climbing on it.
I watched the pilot episode on Hulu Plus. I won’t be watching any more of it there or anywhere else.